Brothers of the Road: Jim Tully and Charles Willeford

Jim Tully Circus ParadeWhen I was in my early-teens I read a magazine article that briefly mentioned a book. In those couple of lines something was revealed to me though then I wouldn’t have been able to express what. The book was On the Road by Jack Kerouac and I knew that at any cost I HAD to read this book. But this was the bad old, pre-internet days when one didn’t have the world’s bookstores at his young, rapidly texting thumb and finger tips. I was too young to drive and the library was way too far away to get to by bike so I did what I often had to do. I committed the book to memory and slotted it into place with hundreds of other titles and authors. This mental list was always carried around in those days because getting to a bookstore (other than the one located in the local mall which I had of course picked clean at that point) was a rare, once a year bounty. I would save my money all year for when we went on vacation because it was Ocean City, MD that held the most book stores per capita for me in those years. There were multiple used book stores in addition to the chain locations that would have stock that was new to me. Manna from heaven indeed. The first thing I would do when I would enter these stores I would recall my mental wish list. Then I would systematically head to those letters sections on the shelf and scan my eyes quickly across the shelf. Too often I would strike out and the author of the still non-existent book I was hoping to find would taunt me. I was convinced that the book shaped hole in my heart would never be filled.

The flip side to this was the unmatched joy when my scanning eyes would stop dead in their tracks, sometimes having to back track, staring in disbelief at a book that I had been seeking for years. There was always a pause, as if I what I was looking at wasn’t real. This would almost always be followed by reverently pulling it off of the shelf. Whatever else had been going on in my life the discovery of a long sought book would dominate it all.

Another emotion that would mug me every once in awhile was on those rare occasions when I had panned more than one flake but didn’t have enough money for them all. Never has such an agonizing decision been forced on a reader. Fear only to be matched by being in a public restroom in a stall with no toilet paper. It was many a book that came THIS close to resting not so comfortably down the front of my pants.

But I digress.

When I found my copy of On the Road in a bookstore directly on the boardwalk that was long and narrow and filled from floor to ceiling with paperbacks I clutched that ugly pink and blue cover as Moses must have clutched the Tablets of Stone. As I stumbled from the store dodging the throngs of fellow vacationers and fellow stumblers from The Purple Moose Saloon, blinking from the bright sun stinging my eyes, I felt like I was coming down from Mount Horeb. I found an empty bench and began to read. It awoke something in me and spoke to me in a way that hadn’t happened before. It was the first book to have that effect on me as an adult. What it awoke in me was the desire to travel; to cut out on my own and see the country by any means necessary.

***

This bug to travel has haunted the backroads of American letters ever since Walt Whitman sounded his barbaric yawp. Throughout the 20th century there was a strain of American narrative that doesn’t really have a more proper name except maybe to call it hobo literature. It sounds haughty I know but the modes for these works have included autobiography, biography, memoir, novels, songs and poems.

In the twenties and thirties hobo narratives were some of the most popular books. Books like Tramping with Tramps by Josiah Flynt (1899), The People of the Abyss by Jack London (1903), The Road by Jack London (1907) and Autobiography of a Supertramp by William Henry Davies (1908) would all lay the ground work for this explosion in popularity which would include Tramping on Life by Harry Kemp (1922), You Can’t Win by Jack Black (1926), Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell (1933) and Sister of the Road: The “Autobiography” of Boxcar Bertha as told to Dr. Ben Reitman (1937). The best and most popular of them of them all was a guy named Jim Tully.

Jim Tully was a hobo in the early part of the 20th century. He was also a vagabond, roustabout, professional boxer; eventual journalist, press agent for Charlie Chaplin, Hollywood’s first columnist and most important of all, a writer. He was one of the most popular, both critically and commercially, writers in his day. Today, most have never heard of him but then everyone was reading Tully. His five autobiographical books were Beggars of Life (1924), Circus Parade (1926), Shanty Irish (1928), Beggars Abroad (1930) and Blood on the Moon (1931).

He was an entirely self-taught writer whose prose style is stripped of all affectation and pretense. His sentences are straight forward economical jabs that form paragraphs and ideas not intended to carry on any tradition but instead exist as the two-fisted marrow of his own life. Tully’s work deserves to be read for a number of reasons. It holds up, it is good and interesting, it presents an America that is many times over forgotten and from a crime fiction perspective, he is arguably the founder of the American hardboiled style of writing.

Let that one sit for a moment in case it flew right past you.

Yeah, you heard me right.

While it is intended to be a claim that is slightly provocative to get you to read one of his books it isn’t a claim that is wholly without merit. At best Jim Tully, a writer that no one has heard of 60+ years after his death, founded the American hardboiled style of writing; at worst his fiction and hobo fiction in general represent an often unmentioned influence on the style. It’s worth noting that while narrativley similar these hobo works do take on different writing styles so while the other hobo books all are good in their own way its only Tully’s that is hardboiled.

If the hobo as precursor to hardboiled characters and writing doesn’t feel right then all you have to do is read Circus Parade. The core argument revolves around his writing style; his ear for dialog; his coverage of and compassion for those on the low end of the social scale and those on the fringe. One of the other hallmarks of Tully’s work, which also would influence the early crime writers, was his unflinching presentation of dark things. Circus Parade (Black Squirrel reissue 2009) for example features a mauling, a suicide, a gang fight/brawl, a robbery, junkies, two animals fighting to the death and, still shocking 80+ years later, in one of the shortest and the soberest of all the chapters, a vicious and heartless gang rape of a 14 year old black girl. This is dark stuff, not just for that era but even today.

While there isn’t any direct evidence it’s possible that writers like Jack Vance, whose memoirs were released last year, and Jack Kerouac, also read Tully given his popularity. We do know that Charles Willeford read Jim Tully at around the same age as I read Kerouac. It’s also easy to guess that Willeford was as similarly affected as I was. When read at the right age certain books perform a kind of spell on young readers.

Willeford was not only a kindred spirit of Tully’s but a long time admirer also. He wrote an article called “Jim Tully: Holistic Barbarian” which offers up an honest assessment of his work.

I was looking for a street charles willeford

The second of Willeford’s memoirs, I Was Looking for a Street (originally published in 1988 and reissued in 2010 by Picture Box), has as its large middle section an account of Willeford’s years on the road. These itinerant years are Willeford’s late edition into the canon of hobo literature.

I Was Looking for a Street shows Willeford at the height of his powers. In looking back over his life he pulls out a sophisticated narrative that massages the already compelling story into one for the ages. What Willeford’s book has over Tully’s is perspective. Willeford wrote I Was Looking for a Street later in life and it shows. He had more time to reflect on his journey’s and make connections that might have otherwise gone unnoticed and uncommented on if it had been written at that time. Tully’s book has urgency and Willeford’s has reflection.

Picture Box has indicated that they have plans to release further Willeford books. Black Squirrel Books started a massive Jim Tully reissue project last year with the release of Circus Parade and Shanty Irish; this year will see the release of Beggars of Life and The Bruiser; Shadows of the Moon is scheduled for release in 2011. All of these Tully releases are building up to the release of the long awaited Jim Tully biography Jim Tully: The Life of an American Writer written by Paul J. Bauer and Mark Dawidziak

Willeford’s star seems to have steadily risen in the years since his death but so far lacks the canonical placement of a Jim Thompson and worse still is the remembrance of Jim Tully. If there was ever a guy who wasn’t remembered at all but should be then its Tully. Simply put I Was Looking for a Street and the new editions of Tully’s work represent some of the best re-issues to be released in 2010.

Some other reviews of Jim Tully’s work can be found here and here.

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Brian Lindenmuth

Brian is the non-fiction editor of Spinetingler magazine and one of the fiction editors of Snubnose Press. In addition to Spinetingler his work has appeared in Crimespree magazine and at BSC Review, Galleycat and the Mulholland Books website. He also heads the Spinetingler Award committee.

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